Water - Yours or Mine?
“Thud! Clank! Thump!”
A cacophony breaks out at the corner of the street—making young Chandru, who was dozing eacefully as he waited for his school bus to arrive—jump out of his skin! As if this was not enough—there is a burst of screaming voices hurling the most colourful gaalis at each other. “Ooff...the water tanker has entered Phoolrani ki Basti… its early today”, he mumbles to himself.
It happens everyday. Phoolrani ki Basti is a slum cluster next to the high rise building where Chandru lives. Every morning a tanker bearing water arrives—and triggers off a mini riot among the people who live here. Women, children, men— young and old—carrying pots, buckets, cans (just about any container available!) make a beeline for the vehicle, pushing and abusing each other. Yet, not all of them manage to get their share. Chandru has watched the crowd from his balcony on many Sundays. He has seen the tanker drive out… leaving behind empty pots and angry women. The amount that the tanker brings in is obviously not enough for the people of Phoolrani ki Basti. So the race to ‘get to the tanker first’ takes place everyday. It’s more like a battle, really. A bitter one, sometimes leading to broken limbs and bloodied faces.
But today, as Chandru stepped into the school bus, a thought crossed his mind. Didn’t his father call in a water tanker to fill up the underground reservoir in his building the other day? He had heard his mother complain about the money they had had to pay for that. “We pay the government every month for water, and we still need to cough up an extra amount for tankers!” she had said. “Why is the municipal supply so erratic?”.
Water Rights who owns?
Right to water is actually right to life and livelihood. Of course, we cannot live without drinking it. You already knew that. But did you also know that water is the driving force in the economic growth of a nation? Farmers, industrialists, professionals and traders in every field need water to survive. No wonder ‘water rights’ is the most hotly debated topic in the world today. Let’s see where India stands on this front…
Water literate... by tradition
Our ancestors realised the importance of managing water wisely much ahead of the rest of the civilised societies. You see, in India it was critical to get the water equation absolutely right. Why? Because rainfall in India is seasonal. In most parts of our country it rains for about 200 hours in a year! And our lands are made of hilly terrains or large tracts of arid plains or heavily flood-prone regions. A huge amount of rainwater flows off unused during the monsoon and once the season ends, the land becomes dry. So the people who first inhabited the Indian subcontinent learnt that they needed a very finely balanced system of water supply and distribution to run a healthy economy. And that rainfall had to be captured where it fell... locally.
They prospered. Throughout the first millennium, India was the richest country in the world…and the Europeans were making desperate attempts to reach its shores.
Who owned water then? Well, the kings knew that agricultural prosperity would earn them revenue. So they built tanks, wells and canals. But they encouraged local communities— ordinary people—to manage the structures. Every village functioned like a little republic. The village assembly set down rules for sharing and distributing water, and also had the authority to punish anyone who dared to defy. History proves that very efficient local water management systems were set up in various parts of India in as early as the 4th century BC.
British raj... taking control
Then came the colonisers. In 1858 the British Crown took up the reins of control. The sole aim of the rulers was to increase revenue. So they stripped the village institutions off their authority to manage local resources. They imposed huge land taxes, even during droughts. And the villagers struggling to pay off could no longer raise funds to maintain the ponds, wells and canals.
The government with its gigantic network of officials took control over the land. And the water.
The desi babus
The foreign rulers destroyed India’s ancient water tradition. The native babus who took charge after Independence did nothing to restore it. In fact, they did everything to ensure that water remained under the control of the government authorities. The mantra of the era was ‘big dams— the temples of modern India’. It still remains the passion of our rulers—who continue to spend crores of rupees on them. Let’s take Andhra Pradesh as an example. Here, more than Rs. 128 billion has been spent on large irrigation projects since 1950!!!. Do you want to know how much has been spent in the entire country? Find out!
You must have read about India’s ‘history of dams’ in your text books. The basic idea was to store, check and regulate the flow of our numerous rivers by building gigantic, concrete structures on them. And as I have told you—big money has been spent on these big dams.
So was that a total waste? Of course not…we needed them to cater to India’s growing millions--- no billions! The problem was that the government put in all its attention and money in these humungous engineering projects… and forgot all about the home-grown, traditional systems of water management.
Forgetting the small — a big mistake!
Now that was a major mistake. Why? Let me share with you some interesting facts. Here it goes:
But hey…let’s do a reality check here. Surely, no one can do without his or her share of water...even for a day! If the government cannot supply enough, where are the householders, industrialists, farmers, getting their quota from? The answer is groundwater. Did you know that India is among the largest exploiters of groundwater? Out of the 200 cubic kilometres of groundwater drawn globally every year, India extracts more than 66 per cent!
So, if the government has been responsible for managing and supplying water to all of us…it has been going horribly wrong somewhere…
Result? More than two thirds of our country today can be divided into two zones: groundwater scarce zone and acutely groundwater scarce zone. Pretty appalling...isn’t it? But what is more shocking is that we have very little idea about who is using all this water and exactly how much… Let me explain. The consumers can be divided under three heads—domestic, industrial, and agricultural. The government does track their rate of consumption— but the figures that it comes up with just do not look real!! See for yourself…
At home and dry...
Government says householders use just five percent of the total ground water extracted. But in reality at least seventy six per cent of rural household and more than 21 per cent of urban families are completely dependent on groundwater. Because they have no other alternative source. Take Delhi for instance. Here there is a daily demand of about 3217 million litres--but the supply is only 2271...So where does the rest come from? Sorry…no prizes for guessing the right answer..
Industry – the giants
This is the fastest growing area in our economy and also the largest user. But do the government records reflect that? Nah…
Agriculture - bound to the ground
Certainly the most crucial sector. Not only because it provides livelihood to almost 70 per cent of India’s population. Because today, 60% of the total 50 million hectares of land under cultivation in India, is irrigated by groundwater.
So why is the government still spending billions in building canals and dams—while the farmers are getting more and more dependant on groundwater?
So what do we do?
Now just take a break and go back to the last few pages. And count how many times I have used the word ‘government’. Too, too frequently… right? Exactly. Let’s stop looking at the government to find all the solutions for us. Of course, we need its help and we must get it. But it’s pretty clear. That if we are to attain our right over water, we have to take up some responsibilities ourselves. Hmm…I can see that you are still doubtful. Ok, let me tell you the story of Lapodiya, a village in Rajasthan.
It got its name from the word ‘lapod’, which in the local dialect means insane. Till about 25 years ago, anyone who lived in this dry and barren village was considered to be mad by the neighbours. The Lapodiyans are pastoralists—farmers of goats and cattle. But the groundwater table had sunk to such depths here, that the pasturelands had turned into vast tracts of deserts. So the cattle starved and so did the people.
Government experts came to test the soil, offered various solutions—but nothing worked. Then Laxman Singh, a young man who lived in Lapodiya, and a group of his friends took over.They realised that the only way the fields could turn green again was by trapping rain— to feed the parched earth. You see, Lapodiya gets very little rainfall, and suffers long bouts of droughts.
But even when the precious rains came—the water flowed off the hilly terrains of the village and disappeared within minutes…leaving its lands thirsting for more. What Singh and his team did was to divide the pasturelands into rectangular plots or chaukas and then built small dykes to stop rainwater from running off. So the water stayed in the land—long enough to seep down, underground. Today,the village has a large population of healthy cattle (feeding on the fodder grown in the transformed pasturelands!). And happy people…who now run a thriving dairy cooperative and who have really worked hard to get their share of water!
What can you do?
You can also achieve such miracles… wherever you are—a city, a town or a village. Oh yes, you can. All you need is determination… to know more about your water! Chandru has made up his mind already…and he has some tips for you on where and how to begin:
So now you know the amount of water you use. At least approximately...it is much, much more than you thought…right? Here is what you can do to use it more wisely and frugally: